Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,

but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.

Proverbs 15:13

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?

Jeremiah 8:22


Lee & Patrick (rt) are joined by family friends George & his wife at the graveside of Joe, the boy’s father & Lee’s brother. (c) Roadside Attractions

 Lee’s (Casey Affleck) spirit might not be “broken,” but, as we get to know him through flashbacks, he is certainly contending with “sorrow of heart.” That is why he has left the village that gives the film its name and puts up with a thankless (almost) job as a janitor in a Boston apartment complex. He is constantly replacing a light bulb for an elderly tenant or repairing a leaky pipe or toilet. Only occasionally does he receive a thank you (from a woman, we see). During his off-hours, he drinks alone in a bar, where he sometimes gets into a fight because he does not like the way a man is looking at him. For Lee is no “glad heart” or “cheerful countenance.”

At the beginning of the film, some eight years earlier, he is standing on the stern of his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) fishing trawler coaching his young nephew Patrick in fishing. They were very close then, but now that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a 16-year-old, the old closeness is gone. Lee has returned to the village upon receipt of the news that Joe has suddenly dropped dead from heart failure. Joe has been divorced from his alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), so the hospital has called Lee as closest relative. Joe’s death was not unexpected, because in a flashback to a hospital bed scene a doctor has diagnosed him with congestive heart disease, news so hard to take that the distraught Elise stalked out of the room.

When Lee attends the reading of the will, he is shocked to learn that he is named Patrick’s guardian, and so is the lawyer by Joe’s not having talked over the matter with his brother. Lee has a host of reasons as to why he is not the proper guardian for his nephew. However, if he is to be in charge, he tells the boy they will have to live in Boston.

Patrick does not want to leave his school friends, hockey team, or garage band—also, the lecherous boy has been grooming two different girls (unknown to each other) as partners to shed their virginity. Over the course of numerous conversations Lee suggests the possibility of the boy staying with another uncle in Minnesota; of Patrick living with his now sober mother whose married to man in a neighboring village; or of staying with the close family friend George (C.J. Wilson), who has been employing the boy part time on the wharf and partners with him in maintaining Joe’s boat.

The film demands close attention because of its numerous, unannounced flashbacks that slowly add to our understanding of the characters. Just as in real life something will suddenly bring back an incident or person we had not thought of in years, so is Lee, while coping with watching over his rebellious nephew, constantly thrust back into his troubled past. He sees that it is not he who controls memory, but that it controls him. And for Lee, these are memories he would like to put behind him. We learn why villagers cast dark looks or whisper about him on the street and why he cannot find a job in the village. There was a tragedy that led to his divorce from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and what amounted to a flight from the town. Guilt and remorse follow him like a dark cloud hovering over his head, shutting out the sunlight.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s somber, beautifully crafted film is good tonic for those chirpy Hallmark-type films that teach that a new romance or adventure will sweep away grief and guilt. You will find that a word-search for “sorrow” or “grief” turns up so many passages in the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, the hurt being so great for one prophet that he cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The Scriptural answer is always tied to a right relationship with God (or making it right if the connection is broken, as was the case with the prophet’s nation). However, we see little evidence of faith in Lee, or in his nephew. And when Patrick has lunch with his reformed alcoholic mother and her new husband, their “born again” faith holds little attraction.

And yet the film does conclude with as positive note as could be expected, even a tentative note of hope. Lee proves to be a wise and caring guardian for Patrick after all. But just before that, we see how wounded Lee still is when he encounters ex-wife Randi and a friend on the street. Pushing a pram with her new baby in it, she is eager to talk with him, so her friend leaves to go fetch their car. Her voice a bit choked up, Randi apologizes for the way she had treated him during their crisis. He relies haltingly, and when she suggests that they meet for lunch to heal their breach, he turns her down. This is the most poignant scene of the film, the two actors deserving the Oscar nods predicted by critics.

I want to give this film 5 stars, but one aspect of it seems either unrealistic and/or deplorable, namely the parenting of the mothers of the two girls that Patrick is desperately trying to make his first sexual conquests. The parents are so permissive, pretending to believe that their daughters are “doing homework” while alone with Patrick, and behind closed doors, no less. They might just as well have given him an invitation, “Welcome to my daughter.” Granted, the boy is smooth and manipulative, using the grief from his father’s death to his advantage, but these women are supposedly adults. Lee also is implicated in his nephew’s plans, though we can understand he is feeling his way in his unfamiliar role of serving as the boy’s guardian, and so does not want to seem too strict. Parents of teenagers, as well as youth leaders, should be wary—there are no good role models for youthful viewers of this film, with the possible exception of George. Having said this, Manchester By the Sea is still a powerful study of grief and the struggle to find a way out of its morass, well worthy of the praise it has garnered.

 This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.


Knight of Cups (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country,

and there he squandered his property in dissolute living…But when he came to himself…

Luke 15:13,17a


Our “knight” is seen on numerous beaches, as well as crowded streets, parties, and night spots. (c) Broadgreen Films

I found Terence Malick’s newest film even more difficult to follow than his Tree of Life or To the Wonder. Even his more traditional narrative films The Thin Red Line and The New World were a challenge to viewers accustomed to the fast pace of most American films, but now even Malick fans like myself are bound to be puzzled by this latest stream of conscious-like film. In my case this is compounded by the constant use of voice-overs whispering so low that my hearing-impaired ears could not pick up many of the words. For me this was an almost totally visual experience—and fortunately the gorgeous camera work Emmanuel Lubezki, who has not only worked on three previous Malick films, but also such grand ones as The Revenant, Gravity, and Birdman, catches the beauty of numerous beaches, sunsets, and the colorful spectacles of the casinos of Las Vegas, and even a strip club. Even were you to turn the soundtrack off, this film would be a richly rewarding visual meditation.

With good reason we hear a quotation from John Bunyan’s spiritual classic Pilgrim’s Progress early on, because the main character Rick (Christian Bale) is shown almost constantly in motion, a modern pilgrim walking amidst pitfalls and barriers that continually threaten or lead him astray. He is a Hollywood scriptwriter who was unable to love enough his first wife, a doctor named Nancy (Cate Blanchett).

The voice of his estranged father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) recites a story he had told Rick and his two brothers when they were children: “Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.” Thus Rick is the modern counterpart to that prince, seduced by the false values of his Hollywood culture. At one point he says, “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t know.”

Along with scenes of love and debauchery at parties and in luxurious hotel suites with the six women in his life, we see him quarreling with his father and dealing with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley). There had been a second brother, but in some manner not revealed to us, he had died–possibly by suicide, because the death had deeply wounded the father and two remaining sons. (One scene shows the father washing his bloody hands in a bowl.)

Rick has dabbled in other religions–Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Tarot, and it is a card from the last which gives the film it’s strange name, apparently a reference to the prince or “knight” in the father’s story. It is the Christianity into which he was born that Malick seems to be inferring lies the balm for Rick’s starved soul, desperately looking for healing or fulfillment. Joseph is somewhat like the father in Jesus’ Parable of the Father and Two Sons. They may have quarreled strongly in the past, but he does not give up on his wayward son. Although at one moment feeling damned himself, he says to Rick, “”My son, I know you. I know you have a soul.” Thus Rick finds himself saying such things as “We’re not leading the lives we’re meant for. We’re meant for something else.” And more than once he asks, “Which way should I go? How do I begin?”

Earlier on, after his desert trek, it is a strong earthquake shaking his Santa Monica apartment that starts Rick on his way back. Indeed, as this was happening theologian Paul Tillich’s famous sermon “The Shaking of the Foundations,” flashed through my mind. It is based on the 6th chapter of Isaiah in which the prophet during a shaking of the temple where he is worshipping is called out of sin to a life of holiness and prophetic service.

A stream of moments from Rick’s debauched past flow by. The women come and go, with it apparent that Nancy was the one whose love for him was strongest, though his latest, with the already married Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), is also intense–Rick now able to really give himself in love to another person. “You have love in you, I know it,” Elizabeth tells him. But their relationship comes to a sad end when she become pregnant, and so unsure of which man in her life is the father is she that she undergoes an abortion.

Rick’s father when grieving over his dead son apparently has found some consolation in the words of his priest Fr. Zeitlinger, “If you are unhappy, you shouldn’t take it as God’s disfavor. Just the contrary. Might be the very sign He loves you. He shows His love not by helping avoid suffering, but by sending you suffering, by keeping you there. To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself, higher than your own will. Takes you from the world to find what lies beyond it.” Thus near the end of the film he urges his son,  “Find the light you knew in the past, as a child…. The light in the eyes of others.” This brings us back to his story of the quest for “the pearl.” At last he has found love in Isabel (Isabel Lucas), who helps him find the light he has been seeking. A baby crawls on a wooden deck. Rick speaks the last word in the film, “Begin.”

I love the way that both Pilgrim’s Progress and the story of the prince/knight and the cup inform this film! The concept of our sinful estate as being a matter of forgetting that we are the son of a king, and thus in need of regaining our memory is a helpful one. It reminds me of the concept of one of the Fathers of the early church who wrote that sinful humanity is like an almost obliterated portrait that stands in need of the talented hand of a Master Artist to restore it.

There is too much packed into Knight of the Cup for any one person to be able to take it all in—at least for this writer. No one should see a Terence Malick film alone, though you must choose your film companion wisely, lest you lose a casual friend, frustrated by having to work hard to “see” the meaning in each scene. This is a film in which my mantra “All of us see more than one of us.” We really need each other’s help—what I missed, you might see; and what you missed, I or another group member, might have seen.

Possessed of a deeply spiritual nature, Terence Malick is not interested in entertaining his viewers, but rather in challenging and expanding their vision. The spiritually lazy or complacent need st ay away, instead taking in the spiritual pap spooned out in so-called faith based films like God Is Not Dead. I am still struggling to understand some of what passed before my uncomprehending eyes, which makes me glad that it will soon be available on disc and streaming video. Although best seen on a large screen because of the gorgeous cinemaphotgraphy, any way you can watch it will prove to be rewarding—if you are ready to work hard at the process of seeing.

This review will be in the April 2016 issue of VP with a set of discussion questions.

Jurassic World (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 3.5

 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”

Genesis 11:4


The huge dinosaur theme park draws thousands of tourists. (c) 2015 Universal Pictures

 An important subgenre of science fiction films is the cautionary story—you know, Frankenstein; Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde; The Hollow Man; The Fly, and, of course, the original Jurassic Park. The scientists in this genre all conduct esoteric experiments rashly, heedless of possible consequences because they arrogantly see no limits to human capability. And of course, their projects end disastrously, leaving survivors chastened. This fourth film in the Jurassic franchise, based on Michael Crichton’s works, is far better than the previous two sequels. It follows the cautionary formula to a T, but still manages to thrill audiences, the suspenseful chases and dinosaur fights calculated to make them forget their popcorn. Although Colin Trevorrow directs the film, Steven Spielberg serves as its executive producer.

The story begins with the parents of teenaged brothers Zach (Nick Robinson), and Gray (Ty Simpkins) sending them off on a vacation to Jurassic World, located on a rugged island off the course of Costa Rica. Their aunt Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is Jurassic World’s operations manager. We see her escorting some potential investors around the park as she explains, Twenty years ago de-extinction was up there with magic. Now kids look at a stegosaurus like it’s an elephant in a zoo.” It seems that JW’s profits are slipping because of a jaded public, so, as we shall see, the corporation is looking for something Bigger and Better.

But back to the brothers. When they arrive their aunt is glad to see them, but can’t remember their ages—and she’s such a workaholic she cannot spend their first day together. She turns them over to an assistant so she can tend to business, telling the disappointed boys that she will see them later. Of course, the adventuresome kids soon give the assistant the slip and launch out in a small gyro-car to explore the place by themselves.

And what a place it is, no longer just a park, but Jurassic World, with large buildings housing exhibits, offices and laboratory. There are numerous rides, mechanical and organic, the latter being atop triceratops so tamed that they have become a children’s ride. Plenty of eating establishments, as well as scheduled feedings of the dinosaurs, souvenir sellers, and the names of corporate brand sponsors everywhere—Starbucks, Imax, Samsung, and more.

We also meet our hero Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), former Marine (thus his “manliness’ is a given) and now dinosaur trainer who has developed a rapport with some Raptors. He and Claire obviously have shared some past history, but now she keeps her distance. This being the kind of film it is, we know that pretty soon Owen’s job will be to rescue the boys and keep her safe when everything goes haywire.

We also meet Jurassic World’s eccentric CEO Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), concerned with corporate profits, and, of course, the arrogant scientist Dr Henry Wu (BD Wong) who has developed a super dinosaur, the Indominus Rex. This latter is even bigger than the Tyrannosaurus Rex that flocks of tourist watch as he consumes a tethered goat. This and later segments are when the sound track becomes as important as the visual elements, the theater virtually shaking with the combination of boom and thud signaling the approach of the creatures. Last of all there is security officer Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) who makes sinister remarks about what a great military asset some of the dinosaurs would be—organic super weapons! He has accomplices with whom he communicates, but this subplot does not go very far. Perhaps a sequel of this sequel will pick up on this.

In Jurassic Park it was Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm who questioned the wisdom of what they were doing. His place is taken twenty years later by Owen, whose “Is this a good idea?” is repeated in various ways. Dr. Wu wants to begin using Indominus Rex for the public, and Masrani agrees. The new monster has mixed DNA, some of it from Raptors. Thus far it has been confined in a huge concrete pen in an isolated portion of the island, but… Amidst the mayhem that ensues from this unwise decision some are punished and some are rewarded. Hubris is once again shown as a destructive element of the human mind. The film also joins those that question corporate greed in which profits are put ahead of public safety, something that has become all too familiar in the real world, as witness the airbag debacle still going on. In Owen we also see an admirable person who truly sees his Raptors as sentient beings and thus cares for their welfare. This is in contrast to his employers who see them only as a source for profits.

In the film’s climax we almost forget for a while the humans, as two giant beasts square off against each other. As a thriller Jurassic World is top notch. The 3-D is used judiciously, adding to our feeling that we are in the middle of the action. However, the extra cost of this special effect is questionable, the flat version with the life-like dinosaurs also being mesmerizing. This scientific morality tale is far better than the two sequels of years gone by, the scriptwriters wisely ignoring any references to them. As a popcorn movie this one comes close to matching the original. It is one that viewers ought not to wait until NetFlix offers it. Even if one waits for it to come to a cheap seats theater, it demands to be seen on a big screen. One last cautionary note for parents: the producers have upped the violence, with both JW employees and tourists dying horrible deaths. I would suggest seeing it for yourself before taking a young child to this!

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.

Foxcatcher (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 14 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Note: the review contains several spoilers in the last portion, so you might want to stop reading halfway through until you can watch the film.

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.

Proverbs 5:10

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

Luke 9:25


John du Pont encourages Mark Schultz.       (c) 2014 Sony Pictures Classics

What a Greek tragedy, centered on a sport popularized by the Greeks! Director Bennett Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman delve behind the headlines of the spectacular 1996 murder involving the wealthy heir John du Pont (Steve Carell) and the 1984 Olympic Wrestling God medal winners Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). The two brothers are the only pair who have won both Olympic gold and World Wrestling championships. Although both had extremely impressive victories while in college, Mark feels very much that he is the shadow of his older brother.

The film begins three years after the Olympics when the brothers have gone their separate ways. Mark is eking out an existence by giving inspirational talks at schools—we see him stumbling through a talk before a bored audience of middle schoolers, for which he receives the princely fee of $20. His unkempt walk-up apartment is in the kind of mixed residential/commercial neighborhood where you would expect most of the residents to be on welfare. Dave, on the other hand, is happily married to Nancy (Sienna Miller), father of two children, and coaching a college wrestling team.

Mark is puzzled at first when a representative of du John Pont flies him to the sumptuous family estate located near Valley Forge. Du Pont gives him a patriotic song and dance speech about the US regaining its place in the Olympic world of wresting, shows him his state of the art wresting arena, and offers him a luxurious guest house and generous financial stipend—if he will move to the estate and help coach the team he is assembling. He names his group of wrestlers Foxcatcher Team and the facility Foxcatcher Farm, hence the name of the film. He also wants Dave, but reluctantly settles for Mark when the older brother refuses because he does not want to uproot his family.

John Eleuthère du Pont turns out to be a strange person whose generous sized nose is usually pointed upward and whose speech pattern is offsetting: indeed, when he pauses and stares, downright creepy. He is a collector, showing off to Mark his vast collection of shells, stamps, and stuffed birds (an avid birdwatcher, he tries to interest Mark, giving him a set of binoculars). He also loves guns, to the point of holding up payment on an Army half-track armored vehicle when he discovers that its 50-callibar machine gun has been removed. Mark soon learns that his host regards the wrestlers as another of his collections, ordering them about and insisting that they spend all of their time in training with little time off for personal pastimes.

Still under the thumb of his aged horse-loving mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), John du Pont chaffs at her disapproval of his choice of wrestling as his sport. It is too “low,” she tells him. Thus his fierce determination to create what will amount to the official US Olympic Wrestling team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He keeps after Mark on the subject of inducing brother Dave to join them. It is telling when he asks what would be Dave’s price, and when Mark says that Dave cannot be bought, Du Pont falls silent. There is an expression of puzzlement on his face, an indication of incomprehension. The du Ponts over several generations have become American royalty from their profits in gunpowder and chemicals. As the heir of this vast fortune he has been able to buy anything he wants, including his bid for Olympic fame.

Du Pont badly wants to be involved in the world of wrestling, and not just to observer and promote it. He himself wrestles in a senior division, and even here his wealth proves a determinative factor. Mark notices that after his mentor seems too easily to pin down an opponent, a du Pont flunky slips the defeated man an envelope. In Du Pont’s universe wealth trumps everything. And this includes adding Dave to his collection. We are not told how, but he does manage to entice Dave to move with his family to the estate. Once again Mark passes into the shadow of his older brother, even more so when he himself does not perform as well as expected at the Olympics.

The film is a character study of three men in the macho world of wresting. This is not the world of Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler, the latter set in the commercially driven sport where showmanship is as important as skill. Instead, it is the no punching, by the rules world of real wrestling where first takedowns are scored, as well as actual pins. It is du Pont’s story that dominates, and not just because of its bizarre outcome. Remove Dave and Mark from the story, and it would still be a tragedy of a disturbed man with other issues. One of the saddest scenes takes place when he is watching his wrestlers during a practice, and his mother is wheeled just inside the gym door. He immediately calls a halt, gathers the athletes around and tries to give an inspiring talk to them. It is so inane that his mother soon demands to be wheeled out, leaving him deflated and frustrated.

The explosive ending in 1996 is shown with no attempt at an explanation. Mark had left Foxcatcher, and Dave was in his driveway when du Pont drove up, asked him a question, and then shot several bullets into his body. Nancy is a witness to the tragedy. Although the court will not accept a plea of insanity, he is found guilty of murder. It is clear that the man certainly had passed over the line, frequently brandishing one of his guns in public, one time even firing off an automatic rifle. In an interview Mark suggests that their mentor was extremely jealous of the brothers. They possessed the athletic talent that du Pont lacked, a handicap he sought to overcome by buying his way into the wrestling world. Whatever the reasons, the film and the trio of talented actors conduct us into a bizarre world that is both fascinating and sad to watch. As a parable warning us that vast wealth in itself cannot fulfill us, it will long linger in the memory of viewers—or at least, of this one.

This review, with a set of discussion questions, will be in the Jan. 2014 issue of Visual Parables. Go to the store for information about subscribing.

Boyhood (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hour  45 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity  3.

Our star rating (0-5): 5

 Train children in the right way,    and when old, they will not stray.

Proverbs 22.6

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Romans 12:2 (The Message)


Young Mason does not enjoy his bowling outing with his father and sister.           (c) 2014 IFC Films

You might at first think that this new film by Richard Linklater (Bernie, Before Midnight) is gimmicky. Shot over a period of 12 years so that he could record the same child actors progressing from grade school through their entrance into college, he took a big chance: What if something should happen to any of them, or the children turned out to have no talent or appeal in their teen years?

Fortunately for us viewers, his gamble paid off handsomely. I have seldom felt so much like an eyewitness to the story, feeling at times that I was an eavesdropper sitting in on real family trials, squabbles and celebrations. There are some good insights into parent-child relationships and the struggle to discover one’s path in life in this film. Had the director/writer possessed more spiritual insight, I would say to him, and his characters, echoing the words of the Galilean rabbi to a wealthy countryman, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

When we meet the characters in 2002, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Evans, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) are in their mid to late 20s. Their two children, Samantha “Sam” (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) are 7 and 6 respectively. Sam loves to torment her brother, and then when he yells so that their mother comes into the room, she convincingly pretends that Mason started it all. Mason collects arrowheads and joins with his buddies in spraying graffiti on the walls of an underpass or ogling the pictures of women modeling underwear in a catalog.

In 2003, not long after breaking up with a boyfriend, Olivia moves with the children to Houston where her mother lives and she can pursue her education. Mason, Sr. returns from a year and a half stay in Alaska driving his dream car, a GTO,. Genuinely missing the kids, he overcompensates, like so many absentee fathers by bringing gifts and playing as if he were a kid, thus making Olivia the harsh taskmaster. The kids hope for a reunion, but their mother has moved far beyond Mason: At college, she studies psychology and becomes interested in one of her professors, also a divorced parent raising his children alone.

In 2004, when Olivia takes Mason to class one day and introduces him to Professor Bill Wellbrock (Marco Perella), he seems charming, revealing that he also has a son and daughter about Mason’s and Sam’s ages. The pair starts dating, with his two children staying over at the Evans with Sam and Mason. The four children get along fine, and the next year Olivia and Bill marry. Bill proves less charming and far stricter afterwards, frequently getting on Mason for not finishing chores or homework. He also turns out to be a drinker, keeping his liquor hidden at first, but then as time goes by, drinking openly. We soon see that Olivia has made another bad choice that will affect her children whom she has been struggling so hard to raise to be caring people.

The film is crammed with fine scenes in which we see that Mason, Sr. is also maturing along with his children. He does enjoy playing with them and talking about how Return of the Jedi was effectively the end of the Star Wars franchise, and I think it was he who took them to the bookstore where a crowd of children were costumed like Harry Potter characters so that they could buy their copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and then taking them to an Astros baseball game. But he also wants a real relationship with them, so when they respond to his questions about their past week with noncommittal remarks, he pulls the car over to the curb and asserts that they have to open up more, telling them that he is concerned about the details of their lives. One of them says that he needs to do the same for them. He concedes. Their relationship deepens so that one night young Mason shows that he is passing from trusting childhood into questioning adolescence when he asks his father if he believes there is magic in the world, or are elves just make believe. The elder Mason struggles for a proper response, saying that there are miracles in the world, such as whales that use sonar to navigate and communicate. It is a tender moment, and both we and they sense that something is being lost in this transition.

As the years pass, Mason, Sr. remarries. He and his new wife Annie (Jenni Tooley) producing a son, Cooper. She and her parents are evangelical Christians, and we hear the cynical Sam state that she hopes he is not going to be one of “those God people.” Sadly, the subject of family and faith is left there, the filmmaker choosing not to explore this any further. (Or maybe, hopefully, the response was edited out, to be restored in a director’s cut edition.)

For a while, Olivia puts up with the alcoholic Bill’s abuse. She finally leaves after one of his mealtime tirades when she realizes that her children are in danger. She becomes a teacher, a very good one, a student tells young Mason at a party hosted by his mother. Eventually she marries one of her older students, Jim (Brad Hawkins), a veteran of the Afghanistan/Iraq War. He too becomes a strict stepparent, though not an abusive one.

There are no title cards to tell the separate years, just references to such things as the Iraq War and the Obama-McCain Presidential Campaign—and, more telling, the changes in young Mason, from moppet boy to gangling teenager with a deepening voice. We see him bullied at school; first noticing and then dating girls; and continually beset by the adults trying to shape him in their image of what a man should be. The latter includes: his teacher in high school, noting his by then strong interest in photography that has led him to neglect the rest of his studies; the stepfathers telling him he must be more responsible; his boss at the restaurant where he washes dishes. And of course, Olivia and Mason, Sr.

One of the funny scenes in the film is the elder Mason trying to explain sex to his highly embarrassed adolescent children. He is concerned that they know how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, probably because that had led to his own first unhappy marriage. Another scene is when on his 15th birthday each of Mason’s step-grandparents (Annie is their daughter) give him a present, she a Bible with his name printed on the cover “and the words of Jesus printed in red.” Granddad gives him the shotgun that his father had bequeathed him. No one sees the irony of the contrast in the gifts—were Mason to read them, the red-lettered words of Jesus clearly going against the violence represented by the gun.

Buffeted about as he was during his boyhood, Mason manages to avoid what the apostle Paul called becoming “so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” (Or as the Phillips translation puts it, “squeezed into the world’s mold.”) However, despite his stepmother Annie’s faith he has not “fixed” his “attention on God. He has indulged in pot and sex, though not to the extent of others. The advice he has received from his father is a mixture of the mundane and the insightful, an example of the latter being the father telling him that to win a girl he must ask her a lot of questions and really listen to her answers. Indeed, by the end of the film we see that father has matured along with son, Mason Sr. even selling his prized muscle car to buy a more practical van to accommodate his family.

This is a film that bears watching more than once, so full of warm scenes, despite the conflicts and divorces. As a child of divorce, back in the days when marriage breakups were uncommon, I really resonated with certain scenes in the film. Pervasive throughout it is the assurance that a child can emerge from such buffeting still loving his parents and with his inner self strengthened by all of his experiences, good and bad. The last scenes of Mason meeting his college roommate and a young woman who seems as insightful as he is a great way to end the film.

My main hope for Mason is that one day, maybe while taking a college religion or philosophy course, he will remember that Bible his step-grandmother  had given him, and take it out and read it. Certainly he needs to move beyond that conversation with his father in which he asks about life, “What’s the point?” to which Mason Sr. replies, “I sure as shit don’t know. We’re all just winging it.” Whereas I appreciate the honesty of the father’s response, I would hope that they both discover that we are not alone “winging it” in the universe, that there is One who can give us wings to fly toward that destination called the kingdom of God.

A set of Reflection/Discussion Questions will be included with the review in the Sept. 2014 issue of VP.